Record sales

Developing a passion for music was inevitable for Lisa Chin (left) who grew up working in Disk...
Developing a passion for music was inevitable for Lisa Chin (left) who grew up working in Disk Den, owned by her parents Hing (centre) and Noni Chin, and going to gigs at music venues owned by her uncles, such as Sammy's and the Crown Hotel. PHOTO: BRUCE MUNRO
Disk Den is more than just Dunedin’s longest surviving music album retailer. Hing and Noni Chin reflect on 45 years in the music store game and generations of customers tell Bruce Munro why Disk Den is an international institution.

Hing Chin stands next to a display of vinyl album covers spanning divers centuries, continents and musical tastes. Behind him is a wall bearing hundreds of brand new, decades-old cassette tapes.

Wearing blue jeans, a grey jersey and a quiet smile, Hing glances through to the other half of the large store where a solitary customer browses shelves of compact discs (CDs).

‘‘Record buyers are probably the best customers you could hope to get,’’ Hing says.

He recalls one guy, in the early-1990s, who came into Disk Den and bought a double album. A couple of days later, the man returned with the records buckled. He said he had been sold ‘‘a dud album’’ and wanted his money back.

Hing was baffled and asked the customer if he might have left the album near a heater or in the back of a car - anywhere it might have been exposed to heat. No, the man replied.

‘‘He was adamant and he was quite a big guy and I didn't feel like arguing with him. So, I just refunded his money.’’

Three years ago, for the first time in more than a quarter of a century, the same customer walked back through the same Princes St doors.

‘‘He came in and said, ‘I owe you an apology’.’’

There had been a situation that could have caused the records to buckle. It had played on his mind through the years and he wanted to make amends.

A double LP back then would have cost between $9.95 and $16.95. Hing told the man he could give him $10.

‘‘He said, ‘No, I also owe you the interest on that’. He insisted that I accept $50.’’

Disk Den’s Princes St window displays of t-shirts, albums and posters are well known to...
Disk Den’s Princes St window displays of t-shirts, albums and posters are well known to generations of music-loving Dunedin residents, students and overseas visitors. PHOTO: LINDA ROBERTSON

Disk Den, 118 Princes St. The music store with a vintage double window frontage displaying Adele posters, Roy Orbison albums and Led Zeppelin t-shirts has long been a walk-in time capsule. But it is also a more than six decade long, living thread in the warp and woof of Dunedin’s music fabric.

Owned by Hing and Noni Chin for the past 45 years, Disk Den was, at one time, at the forefront of record retailing in New Zealand. It also gained an international reputation as the go-to store for Dunedin Sound music.

Today, as the eldest of this generation of Chins prepares to retire, their store at the quiet, homely end of town is a changeless monument to a lost era. But it remains a much-remembered, deeply significant institution in the lives and memories of music-lovers throughout the country and around the globe.

It was 1977. Hing was 26 and preparing for his OE, his first overseas trip since arriving in New Zealand from Guangzhou, China, as a 3-year-old, in 1953.

‘‘My father noticed the business was for sale,’’ Hing recalls of what was then called Russell Oaten’s Disk Den, in Rattray St. He said, ‘You should go and have a look’. So I had a look, and there we go.’’

Hing says he planned to run the music store, which had been started by Oaten 18 years previous, for a couple of years ‘‘and then flick it off’’.

The first year, Hing increased the profit.

‘‘So we stayed for another year. And next year, we exceeded the previous year.’’

They kept doing that - even while shifting from Rattray St to the City Hotel building on the southeast corner of Princes St and Moray Pl, in 1983, and then, in 1986, to the present site, which they bought - until well in to the 1990s. In the meantime, the store’s sales had swung from 75% vinyl to 50% cassette and then, from the late-1980s, to almost entirely CD. It was a busy period, as people swapped their vinyl collections for polycarbonate plastic.

‘‘When CDs first became popular, they'd be buying up to five at a time,’’ Hing’s wife Noni says.

Disk Den was the first in the country to become a Top of the Pops album discount store.

‘‘We were $2 cheaper than The Warehouse,’’ Hing says.

‘‘Their Top 40 CDs were $26.95 and ours were $24.95. So, we basically captured a large proportion of the market.’’

The mid-1990s was the peak. Disk Den - a single independent music store in a city of 120,000 - had about 1% of the country’s music market.

‘‘There was about 100 million [dollars] New Zealand, wholesale, [per year] of total music CD sales. We did just over a million dollars worth.’’

Business plateaued and, early in the new millennium, the Chins thought of retiring.

Then they noticed a resurging interest in New Zealand music - especially Dunedin music - particularly from overseas visitors.

‘‘Our daughter was living in London at the time,’’ Noni says. ‘‘She rang one day and said, ‘Did you know Disk Den is in Lonely Planet [travel guide]?’

‘‘We had wondered why all these tourists were coming in to buy New Zealand music. It was mostly Dunedin Sound bands they were interested in - The Chills, The Bats, Tall Dwarfs, 3Ds, The Verlaines...’’

The growth of music streaming platforms has changed everything. It is now ‘‘a lot quieter’’.

Dunedin Sound bands 3Ds, The Verlaines and The Bats. Image: ODT
Dunedin Sound bands 3Ds, The Verlaines and The Bats. Image: ODT

Hing is a member of Dunedin’s Chin dynasty. Chin Fooi emigrated to New Zealand from China in the early-1900s, setting up laundries in inner-city Dunedin.

His son, Eddie Chin, Hing’s father, opened various businesses including the Sunset Strip and Tai Pei cabarets, in Dunedin’s Exchange area.

Eddie married in China, in 1949. Hing and his mother came to New Zealand four years later. His five younger siblings include Sam, who owned Sammy’s Cabaret, and Jones, who owns the Crown Hotel.

Hing’s musical influences began early. When a youngster, his paternal grandmother gave him a crystal radio set. The loudest radio station was 4XD, fostering his affection for country music, particularly Kris Kristopherson, and the music of the 1960s - ‘‘Roy Orbison, the early Rolling Stones, just about all of the Beatles’’.

Hing was also the happy recipient of free concert tickets given to his father, who was too busy to attend.

‘‘So as a 13, 14, 15 year old, I went to Louis Armstrong at the town hall here, in 1963, Marty Robbins, in ’64, and the Rolling Stones, in ’65.’’

Noni’s musical tastes are more contemporary - The Cure, The Smiths, Fat Freddy’s Drop, LAB - but the couple have enjoyed many concerts together, sometimes courtesy of a grateful record company.

‘‘We go for the vibe, for the music, for everything,’’ Noni says. ‘‘Leonard Cohen was probably our favourite.’’

Noni grew up in Christchurch. She and Hing married in 1973. They had three children; Lisa, Nathan and Lawrence.

Inevitably, the store and music were foundation stones in the children’s lives.

‘‘When Lisa was about 2 she already knew all the Neil Diamond songs,’’ Noni says.

Lisa adds that she was vacuuming and serving behind the counter while still at primary school.

Dunedin bands became her passion, fuelled by access to her uncle’s music venues. Her first concert was a matinee performance by Netherworld Dancing Toys.

‘‘I would go and do the coat check when I wasn't old enough to work behind the bar. So, I got to see all of those bands. My favourites were Straitjacket Fits, The 3Ds and The Chills.’’

Hing and Noni’s children, however, had no interest in continuing the family business.

‘‘It’s a sunset industry,’’ Hing agrees.

Hing Chin: ‘‘I can honestly say that I've never had a ratbag customer in 45 years.’’  PHOTO:...
Hing Chin: ‘‘I can honestly say that I've never had a ratbag customer in 45 years.’’ PHOTO: LINDA ROBERTSON
Music and commerce, divergent arts, have been deeply entwined in Hing and Noni’s lives, expressing themselves as a single entity, Disk Den.

The key to running a successful music store is stocking what your customers want rather than catering to your own tastes, Hing says.

‘‘Because music is fashionable, the hardest thing is to gauge what are the coming trends.’’

During the ’80s and ’90s, when Dunedin had up to a dozen different stores selling music in varying quantities, the South Island had about eight record company sales representatives who would drop in with equal quantities of wares and opinions.

‘‘You quickly learn which ones are the ones to trust and which ones would inflate their numbers.’’

Hing heard about a rep’ who told staff at Woolworths, in Andersons Bay, Dunedin, that a new Carpenters record was going to be a hit.

‘‘He sold the Andy Bay store 150 copies of that Carpenter's LP. And I think they sold about 10 or so. The manager of Woolworths banned the rep’ from ever coming into the store again.’’

Hing got good at making those calls, based on an alchemic mix of experience, gut instinct and keeping up to date on overseas trends.

Disk Den’s album sales record makes that clear. Best sellers - selling more than 2000 copies - included Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. The store also sold more than 1000 copies each of albums by the Cranberries, Oasis, Ace of Bass and The Corrs.

‘‘Considering 7500 copies sold makes it a gold record, 1000 or 2000 copies is a lot for Dunedin, for one little independent store,’’ Hing says with quiet pride.

Despite their success, Hing and Noni never aspired to own a chain of Disk Den stores.

‘‘No, no, no,’’ Hing says. ‘‘Because once you open more than one store you're not a record shop owner, you're a manager, you’re a personnel manager. And that just never appealed to me. We're basically just a small family operator.’’
What has made it satisfying, the couple say, is their customers.

‘‘Record buyers are... knowledgeable as to what they want. And just pleasant to deal with,’’ Hing says. ‘‘I can honestly say that I've never had a ratbag customer in 45 years.’’

For Noni, a favourite part of the job was helping customers find the right piece of music for a special occasion such as a wedding, a funeral or a 21st birthday.

‘‘Once, I had this beautiful young lady come in, and she had cancer,’’ Noni says.

The woman needed to have an MRI scan but was terrified of being in the medical machine’s confined space. She asked Noni to help her choose music to listen to during the procedure, to help her relax.

‘‘We listened to a whole lot of CDs. And we chose Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me. That was really special. I always wondered what became of her.’’

A number of celebrities have also passed through the store.

Billy Connolly kept his back to customers until he could buy a couple of country music cassettes.

Jonah Lomu had his bodyguard check out the store before he came in and ‘‘bought half my shop out’’.

Jack Johnson gave them concert tickets in thanks for putting his poster up in the store window ahead of a show with Ben Harper.

Disk Den still stocks vinyl records, cassettes and CDs, but business is quiet compared with its...
Disk Den still stocks vinyl records, cassettes and CDs, but business is quiet compared with its mid-1990s heyday when the store was selling more than $1 million dollars worth of CDs a year. PHOTO: LINDA ROBERTSON
As digital replaced physical albums, Disk Den diversified. For the past few years, it has eeked out an existence selling mostly t-shirts, posters, LPs and CDs, in that order, plus a few knick-knacks.

Hing walks the Disk Den aisles, casting an eye over the walls of cassettes and CDs and the rows of vinyl records.

At one time, he says, not only did he know where everything was, he also knew half the songs on each album.

‘‘Somebody would ask for a song and I would know exactly which album it was off. But I’d struggle to do that nowadays.’’

It has been ‘‘a very pleasant’’ 45 years. But with both of them now in their 70s, it is time to retire.

They want to travel a bit, spend more time with their children and their grandchildren.

The business will be wound up and the doors closed.

‘‘I would envisage, towards the end of the year or next year. There are no firm plans as yet.’’

Hing is thinking back to where it all began, and where it will end.

In August, of 1977, the year they bought Disk Den, Elvis Presley died - and immediately became their biggest selling artist for the year.

‘‘The whole of my Elvis Presley stock vanished in one or two days.’’

By Christmas of that year, three other albums were top sellers - Rod Stewart’s Atlantic Crossing, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd.

‘‘Rumours still sells and Dark Side of The Moon still sells. Atlantic Crossing, not not so much,’’ Hing says with a chuckle.

‘‘As Meatloaf said, ‘Two out three ain’t bad’.’

Trevor Reekie. Photo: RNZ
Trevor Reekie. Photo: RNZ

The customers

Those who remember Disk Den are legion - and vociferous.

The Weekend Mix issued a call for Disk Den stories. More than 550 people responded, with many dozens leaving comments.

‘‘I still have my Led Zeppelin Stairway to Heaven wall hanging from Disk Den that I bought in 1994,’’ Jessica Baxter, of Dunedin, says.

‘‘It is the most satisfying, curious, and useful shop in the country,’’ says Anna Rumbold, who has not lived in Dunedin for 20 years but visits Disk Den every time she visits.

During the 1980s, Ross Sanson recalls being advised by Hing to get magnetic metal tapes because they would not stretch or snap.

‘‘They were still being played in my cars on every long haul right up to when late-model cars didn't have tape decks anymore.

‘‘This family, I kept coming back to as they were genuinely lovely people.’’

New Zealand music scene living legend and Radio New Zealand music show presenter Trevor Reekie, who during the 1970s played in a Dunedin band with Dunedin City Councillor Lee Vandervis, remembers buying from Disk Den ‘‘a 45rpm single, released by the Atlantic label, of bluesman Albert King, called Cold Feet’’.

Trixie Sharp, who is in her 60s, recalls family going to Disk Den to buy a Jimmy Shand Scottish music record to play at her father’s funeral.

‘‘I used to be in the butcher shop on the corner. Lots of lunch hours and weekly pays went there,’’ Richard Grindley says of Disk Den.

Talei Anderson says she bought her first cassette tapes there - Thriller, Rebel Yell, Unforgettable Fire.

Anderson’s friend, Karen Johnson, who lives in Brisbane, Australia, replied, ‘‘I can’t believe it’s still there. Very cool. I’ll be checking it out when I’m over later in the year’’.

bruce.munro@odt.co.nz

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